ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani authorities are hunting for a British man suspected in an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners who escaped police custody, a deep embarrassment to the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Rashid Rauf fled Saturday after appearing before a judge at a court in the capital Islamabad in connection with an inquiry before his extradition to Britain, Interior Secretary Kamal Shah said Sunday.
Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz assured Ambassador Robert Brinkely that the suspect's capture was a "priority," British High Commission spokeswoman Laura Davies said.
Rauf managed to open his handcuffs and evade two police guards who were supposed to take him back to jail in nearby Rawalpindi, police said Saturday.
"We are still trying to ascertain where he managed to escape," Shah said, adding it was unclear if Rauf slipped away at the court complex or en route to the jail. "The two constables are being interrogated for their criminal negligence."
Shah said security teams were searching the country for Rauf and would report back within three days.
Rauf, who is of Pakistani origin, was arrested here in August 2006 on a tip from British investigators. Pakistan described him as a key suspect in a purported plot to blow up airplanes flying from Britain to the United States, prompting a major security alert at airports worldwide and increased restrictions on carry-on items. He was charged with possessing chemicals that could be used in making explosives and with carrying forged travel documents.
Rauf denied involvement in the plot and prosecutors later withdrew the case against him, though he remained in jail awaiting a decision on a British extradition request.
Britain asked Pakistan to hand him over in connection with a separate 2002 murder inquiry. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty.
Members of Rauf's family have appealed for his release, saying he is innocent and desperate to remain with his wife and two daughters.
Rauf's lawyer, Hashmat Habib, described his client's reported escape as a "mysterious disappearance" suggesting Pakistani authorities did not want to hand him over to Britain.
"He was under tight security ... how it was possible that he escaped like that?" Habib said Sunday.
Rauf's father also expressed surprise.
"I don't know anything — I'm shocked," Abdul Rauf told The Associated Press on Saturday by telephone from his home in Birmingham, 200 miles north of London.